We’ve teamed up with South African conservation safari experts Mantis to offer you privileged access to the oldest park in Africa and the second oldest in the world. Here we explain the story and the history of the area. You can read about experiencing this incredible wilderness area here.
King Shaka of the Zulu
The rolling hills of Zululand, home to Mantis’ Biyela Lodge and Mthembu Lodge, were formed millennia ago by glaciers on the southern-most polar tip of Gondwanaland. In these verdant valleys, formed once the continents would drift apart, small clans of stone-age people discovered a fertile area within which to settle as herders – with abundant waters gushing towards the ocean, and free from tsetse-fly and its dreaded sleeping-disease. Small skirmishes among tribes were in the order of the day, yet the wild new land provided sufficiently for a relatively peaceful co-existence.
This period of relative calm would change dramatically when a tall, imposing young King Shaka took the reins of his tribe in 1816. Born an illegitimate child, he was raised in his mother Nandi’s settlements, and given a name he never grew to like, as it referred to a disease people assumed a woman had when they could not believe she was pregnant. Nandi sheltered the young Shaka and would remain an important figure throughout his life. Trained and serving as a warrior and commander under Dingiswayo, chief of the Mthethwa clan whom he would eventually replace, the young man honed the skills that in due time would make him the fiercest and most innovative, forceful and effective commander this area would ever see.
When Shaka became chief of the Zulus in 1816, his tribe numbered fewer than 1,500 and was among the smaller of the hundreds of other tribes in southern Africa. In the short, tumultuous twelve years to follow, the Zulu would become a force of over 250,000 people, and by as early as 1823, control all of the area from the Pongola River in the North to the Tugela River in the South. Shaka achieved his political agenda through warfare, by building the mightiest band of warriors ever assembled in these hills and valleys. Conquered tribes would simply be incorporated into the Zulu, while others, like the Mkhize, Sithole and Luthuli tribes were won over through patronage and reward rather than war and intimidation. The Chiefs of tribes who surrendered to him were made Izinduna – commanders within his own tribe. His first Induna was appointed at a perennial spring that guests at Biyela and Mthembu Lodges will cross on their game drives.
The fierce King Shaka was a brilliant, single-minded military organizer whose well-commanded regiments of warriors were armed with assegais, a new type of long-bladed, short stabbing spear that replaced the long, throwing spears of old. Body length shields made of cow-hides made way for a much smaller shield designed for close-up contact. Ruling from his capital kraal, called “KwaBulawayo” meaning “where they are killed,” the exacting King culled short men from his ranks as they would not have been able to see an advancing enemy. Likewise, after every battle, anyone with wounds on their back would be killed, as they might have turned to run from the enemy during battle. Shaka prevented his troops, even old men, from marrying, as he believed that marital affairs would weaken the men’s combat skills. Shaka invented the famous chest and horn of the buffalo battlefield manoeuvre, where his impis would take the brunt of the enemy’s force in the “chest” while slowly encircling them with the “horns” drifting out and around the enemy force.
The Zulu conquests greatly destabilised the region and resulted in the Mfecane, a great wave of migrations with uprooted tribes that radically reshaped the political history of Southern Africa. One such tribe, the Thembu, would move down towards the Eastern Cape and amalgamate with the Xhosa nation, where this country’s other great son, Nelson Mandela, would be raised as a Thembu prince. To the North absconded Mzilikazi, once a commander and adviser under Shaka, yet with matching bloodthirst and ambition, to conquer many tribes in the interior and build a Kingdom as wide and fierce as the Zulu, yet never with the same numbers. Eventually, feeling the pressure form the Zulu on one side, and the advancing white settlers from another, Mzilikazi would settle the Matabele tribe in what is modern-day Zimbabwe.
In 1827, Shaka’s mother, Nandi, died, and the Zulu leader lost his mind. In his grief, Shaka had hundreds of Zulus killed, and he outlawed the planting of crops and the use of milk for a year. As if in a rage about the broken tie between mothers and their sons, all pregnant women were murdered along with their husbands. He sent his army on an extensive military operation, and when they returned exhausted he immediately ordered them out again. It was the last straw for the lesser Zulu chiefs. On September 22, 1828, his half-brothers murdered Shaka, and Dingane, one of the brothers, became king of the Zulus.
Shaka was dead – long live the King. He left a legacy of a united Zulu nation of fierce warriors, large areas of protected wilderness, and a formidable force that would eventually succumb to the British invasion only fifty years later, but not before King Cetshwayao and 24,000 Zulu impi made the British pay dearly at the battle of Isandlwana. On 17 January each year, you can imagine an echo on the waters of the iMfolozi where thousands of warriors once crossed: “March slowly, attack at dawn and eat up the red soldiers.” Yes, in these valleys, and on the banks and in the water of the mighty iMfolozi, the blood and sweat of humans and animals have mingled. Through the endless march of time, their restless spirits look down on the continued dance between man and nature. As a visitor to Biyela Lodge or Mthembu Lodge, your footprints become part of this story.
In periods of calm during the internecine rivalry and warfare, there was always time for the Royal hunt. Shaka’s impis now turned hunter, and easily covered 40 kilometres per day on foot to descend on the hunting grounds around the Imfolozi River, where game was abundant. No other chief was allowed to hunt these areas, and herein lies the early origins of sustainable management of the balance between humans and game in the area. Where the White iMfolozi meets the Black, buffalo pits with sharp spikes were dug on the river banks, and hordes of buffalo were driven into these pits. Once the hunters returned to their kraals with their bounty, this wilderness area would rest and replenish as it had done for millennia, with the same species that visitors to the KZN Big Five wilderness experience will encounter on their daily game drives.
Read about staying in this incredible wilderness for yourself here.